Accidental Auto-Ethnographies: The Man Behind the Camera

I have the great fortune and misfortune of having an extensive collection of home movies from my childhood. My family would bring them out to watch on holidays, or at family reunions, and I would laugh and cringe and cry. With the death of the VCR, the tapes remained in storage, unwatched, for a decade. Recently my mother had the movies transferred to DVD.

“Okay, just the kids”

The first thing that struck me when watching these old movies were the things that were now missing from my life. Many of the movies were filmed in my grandparents’ houses, all of whom are now dead, and all of which are now owned by strangers. I see the hundreds of ceramic dolls my grandmother made, and I wonder where each of them ended up. I see one of the risque parsnips that would grow in my great-uncle’s garden every few years, and I know that the plot of land is now a swimming pool for some other family.

The semi-annual appearance of a “dirty parsnip” from my Great Uncle’s garden

It was only recently that I started thinking about other absences, specifically that which was present in in the moment, but missing from the film. Specifically, I was thinking about my father.

A rare appearance, filmed by the author.

This is the only image of my dad in any of the movies my mom has digitized, owing to the fact that he was always behind the camera. His absence from these movies is a complicated one; as the sole recorder, he is also present in every scene, directing the shots and offering commentary from behind the lens. This simultaneous presence and absence mirrors his presence and absence in my life, and so I began trying to see these movies as a document of my family’s troubled relationship with my father; an auto-ethnography that he never knew he was making.

Anthropologists have accepted home movies as personal reports for practically as long as the technology was availible (Chalfen 1986: 104). Filmmaker and professor Geoffrey Poister discusses the two layers of meaning that are found in family photographs — the inside meaning and the outside meaning. Outside meaning is that which any viewer can understand from an image, with or without additional context. Inside meaning can only be understood by people who are present in the moment a photo is captured, not just because they were there, but because they have an understanding of the social contexts both within the picture and outside of the frame (2001: 49). The potentially huge gap between these types of meaning make it difficult to use home footage as a source of anthropological knowledge; Poister has found that most home photographs, when described by those with insider knowledge, are actually documents of something that is not at all obvious to outsiders (2001:50). This means that my father’s films are really only accessible to a very small audience. The “ethnographicness” of film is best understood as a continuum, not an absolute categorization (Picton, 2011: 424). Though to an outsider they are documents and reports, to me they can be understood as ethnographic. As an insider, I hope to make these images more clear, to finish the ethnographic studies my father began.

Hiding from the camera

In the above GIF, an outsider sees two children playing a game, perhaps noting that one of them seems shy about being filmed. I was not, and am not, camera shy. My memory of my dad’s video camera are of him imposing it on others. Throughout all of his home movies there are persistent signs of his subjects’ discomfort; from my hiding behind a box, to my mom’s flat refusal to perform.

“Not now”

It’s Christmas, 1991. My mom and grandma are having a serious discussion in the kitchen. My dad interrupts with his camera and a joke. An outsider sees my mom’s smile, but I can see the look on her face as she passes the camera: the look that shows that she is holding back her feelings to prevent a fight.

Does an outsider see this shot of him approaching the house with the same ominous foreboding that I do? Do you need to know the man behind the camera to see the similarity to the first-person shot so often used in slasher films to show the villain’s approach? This was shot in the same year that my dad went to Jail for a week, stemming from his refusal to pay a small claims court fine for overdue library fees. Just like his absent presence in these movies, I was unaware of his absence from our home, only realizing what happened when my mother told me the story as an adult. The car in this shot, that you — an outsider — barely noticed is also laden with meaning that is only open to insiders. It belonged to my Grandpa.

“You know, the closer you get the uglier you are”

My mom’s dad survived my Grandma and decided to move into a small apartment. To help in this downsizing, my father offered to sell his car for him, the car parked in our driveway above. He quickly found a buyer, and kept the money for himself. None of us know what he did with the money, but we all suspect it either paid off some gambling debts, or fueled new ones. This theft led to the first of three separations between my mom and dad: another absence that I did not notice as a child.

An outsider will see these movies as documents of family gatherings, and they’d be correct. Shallow texts such as these could hardly be considered ethnographic. As an insider, though, I know what happens before and after each shot, and what’s happening just off of each frame. Insights into his worldview are in every shot and in every location. In the past few years my father has been absent from my life — not just behind the scenes, but truly gone. By watching his movies with a critical eye, I can at least revisit his presence and absence with my the knowledge that these movies reveal things about him, even while the camera was pointed away from him.

Self Portrait, 1991


Chalfen, Richard. “The Home Movie in a World of Reports: An Anthropological Appreciation.” Journal of Film and Video 38 (3/4 1986): 102–110

Picton, Oliver. “Anthropologists Working ‘at Home’: On the Range of Subjects and Forms of Representation in Film, and What Makes These Ethnographic.” Visual Anthropology 24 (2011): 421–436

Poister, Geoffrey. “Inside v.s Outside Meaning in Family Photographs.” Visual Anthropology 14 (2001): 49–64

Voloder, Lejla. “Autoethnographic Challenges: Confronting Self, Field and Home.” Australian Journal of Anthropology 19 (1, 2008): 27–40